Thursday, June 07, 2007
Star Wars - Episode I - The Phantom Menace
There are some that remember May, 1977 not with giddy nostalgia, but with a sad melancholia. For that month marked the release of the original Star Wars, written and directed by George Lucas, and for some, it marked the death knell of American cinema.Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement, but the unexpected and unparalleled success of the film marked a definite change in filmmaking, and ushered in the modern era of films driven by visual effects. Starting with the success of Jaws two summers previously, continued by Star Wars, and reinforced by the success six months later of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Hollywood turned towards big, loud, whiz bang effects-filled films to keep its coffers filled. Lucas had help redefine filmmaking, and he began looking for the next step in the evolution of the filmmaking process. He believes he’s found it, and as he returns as writer and director, The Phantom Menace is his ultimate experiment.
The Phantom Menace is a prequel to the original trilogy, and here we follow Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) as they investigate a dispute between the planet Naboo and the Trade Federation. As this dispute sows the seeds of what will become the dreaded Galactic Empire, they encounter a small boy with a dark destiny, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Meanwhile, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, one of few actors reprising his role from the original trilogy), is moving behind the scenes to usurp galactic power for himself. And, with the help of a nasty dark lord of the Sith named Darth Maul (Ray Park), moving in the shadows behind them all is the mysterious Darth Sidious (also Ian McDiarmid).There are many elements from The Phantom Menace that resonate with the original Star Wars. We have the wise, older Jedi (played by an accomplished, “serious” actor) who sacrifices himself to save his young Jedi apprentice (Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan – Obi-Wan/Luke); a dark-robed, mysterious figure working malevolently behind the scenes (Darth Sidious – The Emperor); and a young boy, potentially strong in the ways of The Force™, breaks free from the bonds of the planet Tattooine and slowly discovers his destiny (Anakin Skywalker – Luke Skywalker). The film opens slowly, bogged down in exposition and drags ponderously in places. There is so little humanity in the film, it's very tough for the humans in the audience to find someone to latch onto and become engaged by the film.
The best thing about the opening of the original Star Wars was the sense that you were just dropped right in the middle of the story. With a few simple lines of dialogue, Lucas quickly established that there was quite a back story for everyone involved: “There’ll be no escape for the princess this time!”; “There will be no one to stop us this time!”; and the clear indications that Leia and Vader obviously have quite a history as antagonists.
Here, the villains have no motivations, at least none that are ever made clear. They are the worst kind of cookie-cutter villain; they are evil simply because they are evil (or maybe it’s because they’re just assholes). Perhaps all will be revealed in later films, but that is to the detriment of this film. Without any reason for their behaviour, they are behaving like simple evil cartoons (literally and figuratively in some cases). Darth Maul never really does anything evil, or never has any motivation to be evil. He just looks cool. In his introduction to the novelization of Return of the Jedi, Lucas wrote, “Star Wars is also very much concerned with the tensions between humanity and technology … In Jedi, the theme remains the same, as the simplest of natural forces brings down the seemingly invincible weapons of the Empire.” Lucas, it seems, has failed to learn his own lesson as he seemed more concerned with directing special effects than actors.
There’s no question that The Phantom Menace represents a quantum leap in the technology of filmmaking. It pushes the envelope for special effects beyond anything that could have been imagined even five years ago. The processor power is mind-boggling and is increasing exponentially. (At ILM, the Kerner Power Series 4 that rendered the digital effects for The Abyss and Terminator 2 has just been retired. It can no longer keep up with the demands of its current job: handling ILM’s email.) Lucas has been researching and testing this technology for years, and now here is its full-fledged roll out. Titanic featured 500 special effects shots, while The Phantom Menace has more than 2,000 (there are only 2,200 shots in the whole film).
Indeed, there is nary a shot or sequence in the film which has not been enhanced by some sort of digital manipulation. Many sets were extended or created entirely with digital animation. Whole battle sequences, with armies of thousands, exist only as data bits in ILM’s mainframe. Lucas’s ability to manipulate film now extends to actors themselves. The puppeteer performing C-3P0 from behind was digitally removed, while the actor who played Jar Jar Binks was replaced and rotoscoped by a character animated on a computer. Many of the actors’ performances were filmed against bluescreen so that the actors could be inserted into digital sets.
And Lucas was able to take his lead actors’ performances from different takes and put them together. For instance, if he liked Neeson’s take four but McGregor’s take six of a scene, he could (and did) digitally splice what he liked from separate takes and reassemble them as one scene. He was even able to take an actor’s facial expression from one take and superimpose it seemlessly onto the actor’s face from a different take. The screen is so often filled with anatomically improbable (albeit spectacularly designed and realized) animated characters, it’s easy to forget that you are watching a movie and start thinking that you’re watching a very long Marvin the Martian cartoon.
And Marvin would fit in with this bunch quite well – a completely implausible body, a strange dialect and voice and played mostly for comedy relief. But most of these characters exist as one-note characters.
Indeed, some even verge on racism. The aliens leading the trade embargo have Japanese accents. One sometimes gets the feeling that you’re watching a bad WWII film about Pearl Harbor and that Toshiro Mifune was hired as the dialogue coach.And Jar Jar Binks is an abomination. With his pidgin English (“yousa” and “messa” for “you” and “me”), dreadlock-like ears, and bellbottom pants and vest, he is a jive-walking Uncle-Toming token toady, the latest in a long line of cinematic black stereotypes. Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal, described Jar Jar as “a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen.” Rick Barrs of the alternative Los Angels weekly New Times wrote, “[We] can only hope that Massa George comes to his senses...and kills off shufflin’ Jar Jar.” Lucas spent a lot of time and effort trying to create fully animated virtual characters, but instead of creating characters, he created caricatures. As a special effect, at times Jar Jar is moderately effective. Unfortunately, as a central character, he delivers a lot of exposition that at that is nearly undecipherable because of his (seemingly) Jamaican accent. He is often so obviously a special effect that he doesn’t become anything more than a painful distraction.And many of the special effects do become just distractions. Lucas has fallen into the same trap that Return of the Jedi fell into (but avoided by Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back ): the effects must serve the story, not the other way around. The aforementioned battle sequences do not stir our emotions nor engage us in any way. The battles are between cartoon Gungans and cartoon robot droids, and we don’t care much about either faction. It looks wonderful; it resonates nothing. And the actors often seem at a loss. Certainly, this is the toughest job for an actor: acting in front of a bluescreen, playing a scene against nothing, and reacting to a character that only exists in the director’s mind and will upstage you when it’s finally inserted into the film. And it seems that most of the time, Lucas simply abandoned his actors. Both Neeson and McGregor have publicly decried their experience making the film. Neeson is sometimes effective, but often seems bored with the whole thing and throws away some of the best lines in the film. McGregor is more effective, but is often given little to do while playing second fiddle to Neeson. Directing only his fourth movie (and first since the original Star Wars 22 years ago), Lucas’s direction is uneven and choppy.
And let’s face it – Lucas was never a gifted director in the first place. THX-1138 and American Graffiti were good films, but the direction was nothing special, and Star Wars succeeded in spite of Lucas’s sometimes pedestrian direction. Lucas has often said that he didn’t always know what he was doing when he made Star Wars and that he filmed it by the seat of his pants, whereas The Phantom Menace represents the zenith of filmmaking. I wish Lucas would go back to those days when he didn’t know what he was doing. Maybe then we would have had a good film. The humour is forced, childish and unfunny. Fart jokes, do-do jokes, kicked in the groin jokes, slapstick during the climactic battle sequence. Memo to George; these aren’t funny! And Lucas’s sudden spin that these are children’s films doesn’t wash. Star Wars is not a children’s film – billions of people die. And Empire is most definitely not a kiddie’s film. This is a series of films with the repeated image of people getting their limbs and body parts hacked off, not exactly family viewing. And the prequel trilogy is dealing with heavy, dark themes -- we will eventually see the destruction of the Jedi knights, and the brutal rise to power of Palpatine and the Empire. One way of looking at the first trilogy is that this is a series of films about Hitler’s childhood and his eventual rise to power through murder and mayhem.
Jake Lloyd, the child actor portraying young Anakin is mostly ineffectual in the central role. Not all of the fault can be put at his feet. Lucas has given him stale, cliché-riddled dialogue that no actor could deliver and no child would ever say. And all the characters are saddled with hokey, hoary dialogue that, well frankly, just sucks. (Harrison Ford is reported to have once remarked, “[George] can type it, but we can’t say it.”)
The problem with Anakin as a character is we never understand what Qui-Gon sees in the boy. Qui-Gon believes young Skywalker is strong in the ways of The Force™, but no one else can see this, not Obi-Wan, not Yoda, not the Jedi council and, most especially, not the audience. (And why didn’t Anakin use The Force™ to assist himself during the race? This movie hinges on the fact that Anakin is supposed to be strong in the ways of The Force™, yet we never see this and a golden chance for a demostration of power during the pod race is missed.) And Lucas never uses his large, six-movie canvas to any advantage by hinting or foreshadowing Anakin’s future (or Senator Palpatine’s dark destiny as the Emperor for that matter). A hint of the future, even a subtle one, and of the darkness to come would have helped this film immensely.And Lucas has inserted concepts which undermine the strengths (and plot points) of the entire series. A person’s ability to use The Force™ now depends in part of some strange particles (midichlorians) in your blood, not on your inner strength of character and resolve.Apparently, Anakin is “the chosen one who will bring balance to The Force.™” Huh? Most of the Jedi in this film speak pseudo-New Age gibberish. Pity poor Sam Jackson spewing this nonsense in his cameo -- it’s a big fall from Pulp Fiction.
According to Yoda, Anakin is too old to be taught the ways of The Force™. Hmmm, so if Anakin at ten is too old, I guess Obi-Wan was really going overboard when he decided to teach 20-something Luke. There is a delegation of ETs in the Senate. Yes, those ETs! And visible in at least three shots. (Okay, so Spielberg stuck a Yoda gag into E.T., but come on....)
Slavery exists on Tattooine while the galaxy is under the rule of the Republic (the good guys) but doesn’t exist by the time of the Empire (the bad guys). That doesn’t make much sense. And why would anyone need slaves anyway? Droids are a dime a dozen. In fact, Anakin has built one -- C-3P0! (Which starts another plot problem -- why doesn’t C-3P0 recognize the family name of Skywalker when he’s purchased by Luke’s uncle in Star Wars? Surely he can remember the name of his creator! And in a strange coincidence, Vader and C-3P0 never come face to face in the other films.)
And speaking of droids, why are there armies of robot battle droids now, yet in later films these have all been replaced by human soldiers? Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
McGregor’s “rat tail” of hair changes side throughout the movie -- I guess Lucas was too busy making animated characters fart than to worry about continuity involving his human actors.
And when Qui-Gon meets with an untimely death, how come his body doesn’t dematerialize like every other deceased Jedi’s does? Not enough left in the budget for day-glow pajamas for Liam Neeson? There are some moments in the film that work. The last ten minutes of this movie rock, particularly the lightsaber duel between our Jedi heroes and Darth Maul. It is, finally, a human moment, with human conflict being played out. But it doesn’t work as well as it should because Maul has no characterization to speak of. He has ten minutes of screen time in the whole film and is nothing more than a token bad guy; we never find out anything that would make us hate him other than the fact that he picked his costume out from the “Bad Guy” wardrobe trailer. Plus, the fight is interrupted by some force field screens that appear and disappear for no logical or explainable reason, save that they serve to artificially heightens the tension. The big action set piece of the film, the pod-car race, is visually impressive, but, much like the rest of the film, it fails to grip the audience. In fact, the whole scene is silly. In order to win Anakin’s freedom, the best idea that two Jedi knights could come up with was a glorified stock car race for Anakin’s pink slip. This is the best idea Lucas could come up with? This reeks of something out of Dukes of Hazzard, not a galaxy far, far away. But pod racers mean more toys to sell.
And make no mistake – as Lucas is now able to manipulate every pixel that appears in his film, he also controls all the (excessive) hype and all the (over-)merchandising. He could be somewhat forgiven if he could say, “Hey look, I needed some bucks to make this movie so I sold the merchandising rights. I’m a filmmaker. I care about what’s on the screen, that’s what matters. That’s my vision, that’s the story I want to tell. Yoda golf club socks? I have nothing to do with that.” But he can’t say that because it’s been his plan all along. While making the original Star Wars, Fox offered Lucas $500,000 for the merchandising and sequel rights. He refused the offer and holds those rights to this day, begetting a cottage industry that produces such wonderful products as the Darth Vader disco light, the Ewok movies, and kids’ books like Darth Maul Galactic Games and Puzzles. (In fact, Ewoks represent the ultimate marketing success – everyone knows what an Ewok is, yet the word “Ewok” is never mentioned in Return of the Jedi, except buried deep in the credits. But I digress. And any woman who goes to bed with a guy wearing any Star Wars underwear should, before stomping out the door and leaving him, say, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” But I digress again.)
It’s difficult to remove the film from the hype and treat it as a separate entity. And that is not fair. But neither is the complete media bombardment that Lucas has foisted upon us all. And it’s all to the detriment of his film: no film could live up to all this hype.And there is no question that this is a quest for bucks. Yes, TPM was not a cheap film to make ($120,000,000 or so), but Lucas owns it, financed it and knows he will make his money back in the first week, enough to produce the next two Star Wars films in the second week, and enough for a couple of Howard the Duck sequels in the third. So why all the merchandising tie-ins? Do we really need thirty-five different Star Wars books such as those that came out on May 3? Why does Lucas have a $2 billion cross-marketing deal with Pepsico? Why are we going to be so inundated with hype, crass marketing tactics and mass-produced commercialism that we are all going to hate this film, no matter how good it is? Is this the future of filmmaking?
I have in front of me a shopping flyer from a large, multinational department store chain (who shall remain nameless, but their initials are Wal-Mart). Over twelve pages, they offer such tie-ins as computer games, action figures, alarm clocks, toy lightsabers, model kits, jigsaw puzzles, 3D puzzles, games, playing cards, banners, books, doodle bags, skateboards, inflatable pool toys, books-on-tape, N64 games, a Star Wars Monopoly set, stickers, towel and facecloth set, dinnerware sets, watches, bedding coordinates, 20 different collector Pepsi cans, T-shirts, ball caps, runners, sandals and at least ten different Lego sets. My favourite items ware the Anakin Skywalker sleeping bag ($33.86), the Jar Jar Inflatable Pool ($29.97 and recalled as due to safety defects), the Darth Maul Interactive Talking Bank ($49.97), Dancing Jar Jar ($49.97), and the Lightsaber Duel Lego set ($8.93) which features tiny Lego Qui-Gon and Darth Maul figures ready to do battle, smiling those cute Lego smiles even though in the movie both characters meet rather nasty and violent ends. To purchase one of every Star Wars item listed in this flyer would cost me just a fraction under $3400 (plus PST and GST). And this does not begin to cover the myriad of tie-in products available.
Is this the future of filmmaking?
Two young men sitting behind me in the theatre were seeing The Phantom Menace for the fifth time (on only its third day in release). The theatre was filled with 12-year old kids and I felt very sad for them. All the hype and all the product and media tie-ins are telling these poor kids that this is a good movie. They are being lied to. The hype is training them to accept mediocrity as excellence. This is a mediocre film. Wonderful to look at and stunning eye-candy, to be sure. But a very mediocre motion picture.
Is this the future of filmmaking?
If the Star Wars mythos is about finding the force within yourself to conquer your fears and do good in the universe, then why are there expensive toy figures of characters that had only 3 micro-seconds of screen time? If it’s about realizing that no soul is irredeemable no matter how lost it has become, then why are there four different covers for the $35 hardcover novelization except to squeeze every last nickel out of fans? If it is about finding something bigger than yourself that’s worth fighting and dying for, then why has it been demeaned to the point that Zellers is selling Darth Maul boxer shorts?
Star Wars, like Star Trek, is no longer (if either of them ever really were) an uplifting moral fable – it’s now just an industry, just a product, just a money machine, just a marketing strategy.
It’s all come down to selling Yoda golf club socks. And are we going to have to endure The Phantom Menace: Special Edition in 20 years?
Star Wars: A New Hope succeeded because it was fast, fun, full of characters you could identify with and relate to, and offered a simple spiritual message of inner strength and belief. The Empire Strikes Back succeeded the most of all four Star Wars films because director Irvin Kershner, writer Lawrence Kasdan and the cast and the crew had the gall to actually take the material seriously and believe in it.
Return of the Jedi is less of a film than it is a toy commercial.
The Phantom Menace is no fun, has no characters worth relating to, can’t be taken seriously and subverts the original’s spiritual message.
And it’s not even a very good toy commercial.